Neogothic and Neon Paint: Arriving in Bristol

When I see him, I’m mid-way up Park Street, the road that connects the lush, grassy triangle of College  Green to the neo gothic Wills Tower, the edge of the university campus. Brazen, bearded, clad in a tee shirt and tattoo sleeves, slamming down the hill on a longboard, slaloming around the road’s divider line. I stop and watch as he blazes downhill at maybe twenty miles per hour, taking me back to late nights at my undergraduate university looking for my car in the multi-story parking garage with gleeful skaters screaming past, barely avoiding the cement pylons.

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Yarn-bombing and an artistic response to soot-blackened buildings 

Tattoos, longboards, and skinny jeans: my friend Steve described Bristol as “England’s Portland,” and since, more than one non-Bristolian has told me that the “rest of England” views it as green, hipster, “bio” (organic), all phrases similarly co-opted when outsiders describe the Pacific Northwest and California’s Bay Area. My past home, Sacramento, prides (maybe that’s the wrong word) itself in projecting a similar ethos: in a recent study looking to define and identify the most “hipster” cities in the U.S., Sacramento came in fourth, behind Seattle, Portland, and Denver. The researchers came up with a list of businesses which “target” hipster culture, and checked the ratios of these businesses per 10,000 city residents. The businesses? “Microbreweries (manufacturers), records/tapes/CD (retail), music dealers, coffee shops (non-chains only), beer & ale (retail), thrift shops, bicycle dealers, tattoo parlors, and music and live entertainment.”

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On the university campus; a little more mod than postmodern

Even just this road with its steep, rapid upward pitch, Park Street, illustrates that past sentence. On the ten minute walk from my building to the university, I pass three music stores (instruments and records), two vintage clothing stores, two charity (read: thrift) shops, a piercing parlor, two non-chain coffee/tea shops, and two art supply stores. It’s s seductive walk: I buy gingerbread rooibos tea in nylon sachets from a shop with a silhouetted swallow on the logo (always put a bird on it) and mint-green plates from a charity shop. I often find myself in a sea of fashion ripped from 90s closets – short denim skirts with buttons down the front, high-wasted jeans with pockets high on the butt, those ubiquitous circa-1999 polyester Delia’s sweaters, cropped above the belly button.

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Banksy’s statue left over from Banksy vs. Bristol Museum exhibition 

Hip – or hipster – this city has it boatloads (appropriate given its past as a shipping city and its scenic locale on the River Avon). One of it’s most famous sons is Banksy, the anonymous street artist famous for [illicitly] stencilling cleverly subversive and political images on the sides of buildings and walls (for more see Exit Through the Gift Shop, a film for Street Art 101). I walk daily past one of his most famous pieces, a naked man hanging off the “window” of a sexual health clinic. It’s been vandalised with blue paint, but remains – more than one person joins me in photographing it from the sidewalk.

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Street art is all over this city, illicit and clearly non-illicit. I visited Bristol for three days in April when trying to decide it and another school, and happened to look up while stumbling down one street – and saw a mural from one of my favorite artists, El Mac. It seemed like an invitation, a blessing – that somehow this was the right place to be.

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El Mac, “Clothed with the Sun” 2011

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Something else by someone else, painted on the side of St. John’s Church

There’s something that I love about street art, the way it adds color to a city – not just tagging but artistic interest. But the city isn’t all neon paint and suspended naked men, it’s flashes of modernity in a historical mishmash. And the historical still dominates – it’s the hardest layer, the most permanent in this city, buildings that reflect Regency, Tudor, Georgian – a city that has gone through an adolescence and adulthood, reinventing itself in each era.

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Brunel’s suspension bridge over the Avon Gorge

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The university seems to have found the balance between neo Gothic and neon – outside of the Great Hall in Wills Tower for induction week 

Up the hill, past the art and the art stores, towards a university with equal parts historical buildings and steel, brick, and glass. A few days in and I’m already certain – I’m going to like this place.

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Hang a left for the university: an uncertain world.

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A Trip Takes Us

“I know I like to dream a lot, and think of other worlds that are not.”

Lou Reed, “Who Am I (Tripitena’s Song)”

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Twelve years ago, almost to the day, I boarded a similar flight at San Francisco International Airport, clutching a passport that was empty save for a pre-issued visa for the United Kingdom, heart hammering with anticipation and anxiety at the thought of the first international flight of my life. I can imagine how I must have looked to other passengers: a small person trying to make herself smaller, watching carefully to understand how others behaved, how they opened their passports and handed over their boarding passes. Not wanting to seem green or stick out, to seem awkward or ignorant in the procedures of international air travel – learning, ultimately, to fly, metaphorically and practically. I took a similar position, as a cautious observer, for the next few months living in London: my first stint of life as a foreigner and outsider.

Very soon, I will be back to the same airport, bound yet again for the United Kingdom. My passport is hardly empty, but contains similar clearance for study in the UK, this time for four years of the British PhD and not a few months of study abroad. Now, I have equal parts swagger and languidness in passing through security and navigating the terminal; it’s the fruit of those twelve years, four continents, more than thirty countries – those statistics stamped into my passport, emblematic of experiences that have grown me and directed the course of my life, up to this very moment.

But the anticipation and anxiety still hammer in my chest, coupled with “hot palms and the lurch of stomach high up under the rib cage,” as Steinbeck once wrote in describing the preparation stages of travel at the start of Travels with Charley“A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has a personality, a temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safe-guards, policing and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.” 

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James Town, Accra, Ghana

A trip takes us – there is some comfort in leaning into that lack of control. We can plan, we can state our purpose from the beginning. But ultimately, we have to give over control. The start of each adventure is the start of a new chapter of life: knowing that you will change not only your personal geography, but how you see the world and how you see yourself. Today, though, this journey feels less like the start of something and more like the close, the end of an era, turning the page not on a chapter but an entire section of a book: returning to the first country I visited beyond my own, British bookends sealing in one section of my life.

In the past twelve years, I’ve traveled for many reasons: work, school, research, service, love. Did I ever really know what each of those journeys would bring, outside of those clear, guiding goals? I look back at that girl, 19 and terrified (though she would never admit it), and I wonder who she would be without London, Windhoek, Ferrara, Kielce, Port-au-Prince, Taipei, Musanze, Kigali. Travel is powerful for so many reasons. For me, one is that it creates those memorable blocs – instead of a inky, run-together year, it has a clear start and finish – clear in that you get on a plane and go, and get on a plane and return. Those are dividers in my head, like chapters. But what you learned often comes later, how you grew becomes evident in later chapters of life. 

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Facing east to the Indian Ocean, Zanzibar, Tanzania

I can look back at my experiences in the past twelve years and see the bigger picture, the parts of me that have changed with each trip. I can see how I’ve developed confidence, maturity, intelligence, empathy. Responsibility toward others and not only my nation and my social group. Possessions have become less valuable and people have become more. How authenticity – relationships built on honesty and care – is vital.  How travel brings out the best and worst of you, quickly moving you towards those moments of honesty. How I’ve grown to deal with loss and heartbreak and pain; how I can better weather life’s challenges.

I know my stated goal in traveling today, in this new section of life a few days from my 32nd birthday. I’m more purposeful with this start of an intensive degree program; I’m more knowledgeable and less apprehensive. I know what piece of paper I want to hold in four years – but what flights, what experiences, what growth will happen between now and then – that’s for the trip to decide.


Steinbeck, J. (1961). Travels with Charley. New York: Penguin.